The demand for slave emancipation continued to increase among congressional Republicans, especially the Radicals. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote to Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the leading Radical abolitionist in the Senate, complaining about President Abraham Lincoln’s inactivity regarding emancipation: “Do you remember that old theological book containing this: ‘Chapter One–Hell; Chapter Two–Hell Continued.’ Well, that gives a hint of the way Old Abe ought to be talked to in this crisis.”
Unbeknownst to most politicians, Lincoln was preparing the public for an emancipation edict, but he wanted to wait for military success before announcing it. In the meantime, he continued to publicly champion his longtime commitment to black colonization (i.e., deportation) out of America. With that in mind, Lincoln let it be known among the black clergymen of D.C. “that he had something to say to them of interest to themselves and to the country.”
A “Committee of colored men” was formed that consisted of five: Cornelius Clark, John F. Cook, John T. Costin, Benjamin McCoy, and Edward M. Thomas. The men were brought into the presidential office, becoming the first delegation of black people to be invited and received by a U.S. president at the White House. Lincoln hoped to persuade the men to explain and promote the benefits of colonization to their fellow blacks. He welcomed the men, “shaking hands very cordially with each one,” before getting down to business.
Announcing to the delegates that he favored deportation, Lincoln asked rhetorically, “Why should people of your race leave the country?” then answered, “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races… This physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”
While Lincoln acknowledged that “slavery was the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” he asserted that whites would not tolerate emancipation. He said, “But even when you cease to be (enslaved), you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race… On this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.” A delegate tried to object, but Lincoln stopped him:
“I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it, if I would… I need not recount to you the effects upon white men growing out of the institution of slavery… see our present condition–the country engaged in war–our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend… But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated… There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you to remain with us.”
Lincoln announced that Congress had appropriated the funds to set up a colony in Central America, and he needed educated black men to encourage other blacks to join the program. Lincoln noted a similarity to Africa in climate, and he suggested that the deportees work in the lucrative coal fields until “they got ready to settle permanently in their homes.” If the pilot colonies succeeded, they could pave the way for thousands of former slaves to start new lives outside America.
Although the political climate was volatile in Central America, Lincoln said the people “are more generous than we are here… To your race, they have no objections. Besides, I would endeavor to have you made equals… I ask you then, to consider seriously not pertaining to yourselves merely, nor for your race, and ours, for the present time, but as one of the things, if successfully managed, for the good of mankind–not confined to the present time, but… ‘Into eternity.’”
Speaking for the committee, Thomas said “they would hold a consultation and in a short time give an answer.” Lincoln said, “Take your time–no hurry at all.” Two days later, Thomas wrote Lincoln telling him that they would need more time to “confer with the leading colored men in Phila New York and Boston.” It soon became apparent that most black civil rights leaders rejected the plan and denounced Lincoln for devising it.
Frederick Douglass condemned Lincoln’s message when he read it in the newspaper: “In this address Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and argument of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy. How an honest man could creep into such a character as that implied by this address we are not required to show.”
Douglass asserted that Lincoln’s plan would encourage “ignorant and base” whites to commit “all kinds of violence and outrage upon the colored people.” Despite Lincoln’s “tone of frankness and benevolence,” Douglass condemned his message: “To these colored people, without power and without influence, the President is direct, undisguised, and unhesitating. He says to the colored people: I don’t like you, you must clear out of the country.” Douglass argued that blacks were just as much American citizens as whites and should not be manipulated into leaving their homeland.
The Pacific Appeal, influential among blacks, opined that Lincoln’s proposal made it “evident that he, his cabinet, and most of the people, care but little for justice to the negro. If necessary he is to be crushed between the upper and nether millstone–the pride and prejudice of the North and South.” Even Lincoln’s own treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, wrote, “How much better would be a manly protest against prejudice against color!–and a wise effort to give free(d) men homes in America!”
Abolitionist journalist Lydia Maria Child risked “a violation of propriety for a woman” by writing to the president and criticizing his plan for being too appeasing to the loyal slaveholding states. On the other hand, Child conceded that “the pro-slavery spirit of the land is a mighty giant,” and a tremendous part of “the extreme difficulties of your position.” She wrote that the best thing that Lincoln could do was to promise freedom for “the poor fugitives who toil for us” and any other slaves who would leave their masters.
Some activists agreed to promote Lincoln’s plan in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet led the minority in supporting Lincoln’s effort to save “our emancipated brethren from being returned to their former condition of slavery,” calling colonization “the most humane, and merciful movement which this or any other administration has proposed for the benefit of the enslaved.” And a prominent abolitionist conceded that deportation “is a damn humbug, but it will take with the people.”
While Lincoln had long supported black deportation, he did not support making it mandatory, as urged by Attorney General Edward Bates and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Also, what most did not know, was that Lincoln had already begun leaning toward favoring emancipation when this conference took place. As such, this was a clever political tactic on Lincoln’s part to prepare the nation for slave liberation. It could also help Republicans’ chances in the upcoming midterm elections. Lincoln’s suggestion of deporting blacks made emancipation more appealing to the slaveholding border states, and it helped calm northern fears that massive waves of freed slaves would flood into their states.
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.